The Mythical African Mountains That Were On Maps For Centuries

“A map is not the territory.” —Alfred Korzybski

In A Nutshell

Early maps of Africa show some odd mountain ranges running from east to west across the continent. For decades—even after they were discovered to be nonexistent—the Mountains of Kong and the Mountains of the Moon showed up on maps of the African continent, as late as 1995. Stories of the Mountains of the Moon date back to ancient Greek traders looking for the source of the Nile, and even David Livingstone died insisting that they were real—even though they weren’t there when he finally ventured into the area.

The Whole Bushel

As far as Europe has been concerned, the interior of the African continent had long been one of the greatest challenges for its explorers to conquer. It was a land of myth and mystery, of untold riches, of exotic animals and even more exotic cultures, of strange religions and . . . did we mention riches?

Little by little, European explorers started peeling back the shadows from Africa and filling in maps, but there were a few rather large mistakes that somehow managed to remain on maps well into the 19th century.

Nestled along the border of Upper Guinea on countless maps were the Mountains of Kong. To the east, they eventually met and turned into the Mountains of the Moon.

Today, the Mountains of Kong would stretch from from Sierra Leone to Nigeria, and the Mountains of the Moon would continue eastward to what people then believed was the source of the Nile.

The Mountains of Kong first popped up on maps around 1798, based on surveys by Mungo Park with their existence seemingly cemented by support from a legendary figure in contemporary map-making, James Rennell. Rennell was one of the most respected cartographers of the day, founder of the Royal Geographical Society, and one of the developers of the idea of oceanography.

When the mountains showed up in Rennell’s work, no one had any reason to doubt they were real.

Rennell’s accompanying text cited support from Mungo Park, and claimed there was a “belt of mountains, which extends west to east [ . . . ] and occupies the parallels between ten and eleven degrees.” The problem with that is a pretty big one—Mungo Park never even headed into that part of Africa.

The eastern Mountains of the Moon had an even older pedigree, first mentioned as far back as AD 50. They were first supposedly seen by a Greek trader named Diogenes, who claimed to have found the source of the Nile after heading off on an exploration mission when he was visiting the major trading hub of Rhapta.

Today, we’re not even sure where Rhapta was (likely somewhere in Tanzania), but Diogenes claimed that the Nile was born high in a snowy mountain range that he named the Mountains of the Moon. He also talked about two lakes, and there might have been some truth to what he was saying. The lakes might have been what we now know as lakes Victoria and Nyassa, and the mountains were most likely what we call the Rwenzori range.

Looking for the fictional mountains was no minor project. David Livingstone was so convinced that the ancient Greek texts had been right that he tried to insist that the low-lying hills he found were the snow-covered mountains said to be the source of the Nile.

Both of the mountain ranges made it onto plenty of maps and have stubbornly hung on for decades.

They were officially declared fictional in 1887, when a Frenchman named Louis Binger finally made it to where the mountain ranges supposedly were. He found nothing.

But even though most cartographers dropped the mountain ranges from later maps, they kept showing up in, even found in Goode’s World Atlas in 1995.

Show Me The Proof

“Ancient and Modern: Some East African Mountain Myths,” by John Temple
On The Map: Why the world looks the way it does, by Simon Garfield
Mostly Maps: Undiscovering the Mountains of Kong and the Mountains of the Moon
Geographicus: The Mountains of the Moon and the Sources of the Nile